Doctors regularly face the most severe consequence in malpractice situations. A doctor’s malpractice can kill a patient. For most lawyers, the consequences of legal malpractice are not so extreme. For the most part, the only loss that can happen to a client as the result of legal malpractice is the loss of money or property. There is one significant exception. The United States Supreme Court recently heard arguments in a case where the failure of a large firm to simply answer its mail caused a death row appeal to be untimely filed. Maples v. Thomas involves a situation where an Alabama court sent copies of a ruling in to the New York offices of the law firm, Sullivan & Cromwell, they were sent back unopened and marked “Return to Sender.” The two associates who had argued an appeal for Mr. Maples had left the firm before the decision was rendered, and did not inform the court of any change in representation. A court clerk in Alabama filed the returned envelopes and did nothing more. The appeal period passed with no appeal being filed. The case appears to have sympathy from the Justices across the political spectrum.
The question before the Supreme Court is whether Mr. Maples should have been able to proceed with his appeal, but the matter before the Supreme Court would not have been necessary if the lawyers had communicated a change in representation. Failure to communicate is one of the leading causes of legal malpractice actions. Malpractice prevention requires communication with opposing parties, clients, and the court.
–Josh J.T. Byrne, Esquire (hat tip to BCB)